Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Malachi 1:14-2:2, 8-10
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 131:1-3
Second Reading: St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians 2:7-9, 13
Gospel: According to St. Matthew 23:1-12
The most prevalent type of ethical or moral teaching that passes for true religious education goes by the philosophical name deontology. The root of the term is the Greek word for duty, and it refers to the duty that people have to following rules. For most people who have had any formal religious education, a course with the title of Christian Morality usually focuses mostly, if not entirely, on the Ten Commandments. This is a good starting point for those who are new to the discipline – like most students in grade school and high school – but it is a terrible place to complete one’s moral education.
The belief that the Ten Commandments aren’t the end-all and be-all of moral discourse stems not from some post-1960s “all you need is love” ideology that eschews rules as an imposition by “The Man” upon the natural freedom inherent in the human spirit or some other such drivel. No, it stems from the likes of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, and Aquinas derived his teachings directly from the Gospel.
When Jesus talks to His disciples about the Pharisees, as He does in this weekend’s reading from St. Matthew, He is taking those disciples beyond the commandments to a new vision of what the moral life can be. In telling His followers that their attitude toward the Pharisees should be to “do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example,” Jesus is pointing out that the commandments – or following rules in general – are not the end, but merely a means to an end.
For someone brought up in the world of Catholic education, where rules were what separated us from the great unwashed who were running rampant and committing all kinds of dastardly acts in the name of freedom, I had trouble pulling myself away from the belief that to be a good person meant obedience to all the rules and regulations imposed by those in authority.
All I really needed to do was to look at Gospel passages like the one for this weekend and I would have been given validation for a different type of moral view. Nowhere in the Gospels are the Pharisees portrayed as good men, but they are always seen as men who are very concerned with rules, regulations and laws.
So, if there is no direct link between following rules and being a good person, then where can we look for guidance on how to live a life that is not only moral, but also good? We can look to the virtues. Prudence, justice, courage, and moderation are the building blocks of the life of a good person, but when added to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love they help to produce the good Christian person. How do we know this? Because, as the Gospels point out time and time again, this is how Jesus lived His life.
The branch of ethics or morality that focuses on this perspective is usually called Virtue Ethics. This ethical outlook promotes the Aristotelian and Thomistic view that morality is secondarily about what we do and primarily about who we are. God knows that we can follow rules without ever allowing them to change our hearts, but people who have loving hearts – hearts that focus on God and neighbor – ultimately don’t need rules to tell them what to do. Instead of following rules, they follow Jesus.